Monday, January 24, 2011

Chapter 48: Solace

My guidebook said there was a campsite three tenths of a mile off the trail to the right, but I didn't feel like looking for it. Although I suspected Hobbes had headed there for the night, I figured it was probably best to leave him to his solitude. Besides, we had found a nice spot near Reed Creek, and some of us had already started putting up tents. Nature. P-Nut. Redwing.

After we had all made camp, Redwing and Lil Dipper started a fire while Bandito and Caveman scampered off upstream to search for crawdads. P-Nut openly worried about his tent being too close to the stream, fearing the sound of rushing water would make him need to pee during the night. And he didn't want to stumble out of his tent and accidentally piss in the water source or on Redwing and Lil Dipper's tent, which was right next to his. I should have found this amusing, but I wasn't in the mood.

Nature sat on a log by the stream, soaking her feet in the water. Watching her, I came to the sudden realization that my feet hurt, too. I whipped off my socks and sat down beside her, tentatively dipping my feet in the water. And involuntarily let out a rather shrill and embarrassingly girlish scream. Too cold. Not for me.

Defeated at everything by everyone, I went to sleep to the sounds of Bandito and Caveman roasting crawdads over the softly crackling fire.


Megan was all I could think about in the morning. How terribly disappointed she'd be if I didn't make it. How miserable, forgotten and utterly alone she would feel with only her sister, her sister's friends and her father to keep her company. She needed me, I knew. Even if she couldn't always articulate it, or articulate it at all, ever, I knew. I had to make it. I'd let her down enough already. It wasn't going to happen again. I was going to make it.

I got an early start, hell bent to get to Harpers Ferry by sometime later that afternoon. After catching up with P-Nut about an hour later, I realized the slight flaw in my plan. Harpers Ferry was still hundreds of miles away. And I was averaging about two and a half miles an hour. And I hadn't even been the first out of camp. Maybe I was being slightly unrealistic, or possibly overambitious.

My frustrations boiling over, I decided to take a break by the north fork of the Holston River before I had an aneurism. It was actually quite warm. The sun was out. There was a pleasant heaviness to the air. I felt suddenly lethargic, and as though I could have been content to stay there by the river all day, soaking my feet. And so I doffed my boots and socks and did exactly that. P-Nut even joined me for a while. I tried to push Megan from my mind. It didn't go well.

Caveman, Redwing and Lil Dipper's sudden arrival wrenched me from my reverie. They seemed to find amusement in P-Nut's and my position. Like there was something funny about two grown men sitting on a bridge, naked, dangling their legs in the water? How I hated them all in that moment.

I was reaching a breaking point. My little break had accomplished nothing. I needed a sign, something positive to keep me going. And that's when I found it: a cooler full of generic sodas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

P-Nut and I had just passed VA42 and the O'Lystery Pavilion, a fancy gazebo off-limits to hikers, and there it was, sitting on the ground in the shade of a tree. We ran to it, wriggling out of our packs as we went. P-Nut wrenched the lid open. And I jumped for joy, nearly tearing both my anterior cruciate ligaments. Sam's Choice Cola! A more delicious combination of high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavoring and sewage water made by the finest child labor of third-world Arkansas I have never tasted.

"Caveman!" I shouted, as the eternally cheerful Georgian walked up. "You'll never guess what we found!"

His eyes lit up as he saw P-Nut and me sitting there, sodas in hand. Caveman joined us to enjoy an early lunch. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were, and are, unequivocally awesome.

The soft drinks were mysteriously running out, so I grabbed a couple for Redwing and Lil Dipper. I didn't want them to miss out. When I heard their voices approaching I jumped up to surprise them, walking down to them with the soda.

"No. Way!" said Lil Dipper. "Dr. Thunder! My favourite!"

Pretty soon the five of us were lounging about, relaxing, enjoying an early second lunch. After the girls ate their fill, there was mysteriously only one peanut butter and jelly sandwich left. I wanted it.

"No, M.C.," urged Caveman calmly, "Leave it for someone else."

"But there's only Bandito behind us! And he'd want me to have it!" I protested shrilly, "He probably wouldn't want one at all!"

Caveman laughed. "Come on, M.C., let's get you out of here."

"What? No!" I shrieked, trying to dance out of his grasp. And then I may have started crying. "Fine! But I'm taking another soda!"

"Another soda? How many have you had?"

"What do you mean? I just had one. Everybody else just had one so why would I have had more than one?" I stammered. "I mean, of course I haven't had three sodas that would have been incredibly rude what kind of insensitive jerk do you think I am?"

"What? You've had three sodas already?" Caveman laughed in disbelief, sharing a look with the others. "We've only been here for five minutes!"


"How is that even physically possible?"

"I was thirsty. It's very physically possible, and I'll be having a fourth unless you stop me."

He stopped me. And I cried like a sad, pathetic, lost little baby. I hope Caveman found it annoying.

But not as annoying as what Bandito told us when he caught up with us later. He'd arrived at the trail magic some twenty minutes after we'd left, and the trail angels who supplied it were there, restocking the cooler with soda and sandwiches. Bandito stopped and chatted with them for a while.

"They even offered me an extra one, but I didn't want it," said Bandito.

"You didn't have a sandwich?" I asked, incredulous.

"No, silly," he said. "I'd just eaten lunch."

"Caveman!" I screamed, adding several choice epithets, shaking my fists at the sky. And then I started crying again, startling Bandito.

Caveman was now my sworn enemy, and I would get my revenge no matter what it took. Even if it meant becoming his great friend. Again, not a great plan.

We ended that day at the Chestnut Knob Shelter, a charming, fully enclosed stone cabin that I found excessively dreary and depressing. And filled with jerks. Trail magic-denying jerks. Also, I discovered I'd ripped a whole in the seat of my pants. Who knows how long ago it had happened. Perhaps days. I was humiliated. I wanted to die. Or to have my pants fixed. Fortunately, Nature was a seamstress, and she selflessly offered to sew them back together. I appreciated the gesture, even if it made me want to cry again, for entirely different reasons.

I calmed down somewhat after that, finding solace in making a fire. Someone had left a huge pile of pre-cut wood outside, as if they had been planning to burn the shelter down. Which wouldn't have been very practical, since it was made out of stone. Unfortunately, I hadn't had much practice starting fires, and Redwing, despite her latent pyromania, wasn't much help. Maybe it was the encroaching mist that was turning into a steady drizzle. Probably. We ended up scattering a box of about 200 wooden matches onto a giant pile of leaves, and then setting the whole thing ablaze. Or trying to. It still wouldn't light.

Then the brilliant, devastatingly handsome and benevolent Hobbes came outside, and, using his Eagle Scout knowledge regarding the placement of kindle and the importance of oxygen flow, quickly and finally started the fire. Which totally wasn't frightening or dangerous, and definitely didn't rage horribly out-of-control and threaten to engulf the shelter. Which, if we'll remember, was made out of stone, and was thus fireproof anyway.

The three of us hung out for a while, bonding over our shared love of guilty pleasure MTV reality shows, our profound appreciation for Hobbes' fire making abilities and general awesomeness, and our insane, irrational self-hatreds that we had the nasty habit of displacing onto our innocent, unwitting friends. Or maybe that last part was just me. Anyway, it was nice, sitting around the fire. At least until it started to thunderstorm.

We went inside. I had arrived too late to claim a bunk, so had set up my sleeping bag on the picnic table. I crawled inside and settled in for the night, watching shadows dance on the wall, briefly illuminated by flashes of lightning. I soon fell asleep listening to the thunder and the rain battering the tin roof of the shelter.

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